Comedian Demetri Martin tells a joke about going to the bookstore, picking up an autobiography, flipping to the “about the author” section on the back flap and reading that instead of the entire book. Brilliant!
It’s remarkable that every book, every seminar or lecture, every speech, every novel or film can be boiled down to a single sentence. Every life, every career can be distilled— reduced to its essence—in one line.
Wikipedia tells us that Hemingway was “An American author and journalist,” that Chaplin was “An English comic actor who rose to fame in the silent era,” and that Jesus was “The central figure of Christianity, whom most Christians hold to be the Son of God.”
Summarizing a life clearly, simply, and accurately can be challenging. Where do you begin and end?
It’s a cliché among writers that everybody has a book in them, though Christopher Hitchens tells us that in most cases that’s where it should stay.
Last year I searched for a coach who could help me write my book. I wanted someone who could help me find my writer’s voice and refine my message. I wanted to get clear about what exactly I have to say and how to most effectively say it.
One prospective coach asked me to prepare for our first meeting by writing what I would say if I could broadcast ten of my life’s lessons— as single-sentences— to every person on Earth. What have I learned that I would want to share with every person on the planet? What would you say?
Samuel Johnson wrote, “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Unfortunately, I have found, that without the real and immediate threat of death, getting perfect clarity is nigh impossible.
Wess Roberts, a friend and best-selling author, once told me that if I want to know if my writing is any good— if people like it and are willing to pay for it— that I should reduce my main ideas to a single page, take that page downtown, stop people on the sidewalk and try to get them to read what I’ve written. If they do, he said, I should then ask them to pay me whatever they thought it was worth. He said that doing that would teach me all the same lessons I’d need to earn a spot on the New York Times Bestsellers List someday.
In his book The Millionaire Messenger, Brendon Burchard presents a ten-step plan to help people turn their passions and life lessons into profitable businesses. The first step, he says, is to “Claim and Master Your Topic.” I got stuck on step one.
I’ve heard other authors and speakers say things like, “I teach people how to live mindfully in a modern age,” or “I make great people unstoppable,” or “I help people find and live their highest purpose.” But I had no idea how to cast myself.
In our marketing-driven, sound bite society it’s easy to get overlooked without such a single-sentence descriptor. Heck, it’s easy to get overlooked with one.
Perhaps writing my own obituary can help me find the clarity I’m seeking. Maybe I should start with just six words, à la Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure. I found this book when I drafted my brother Roger’s obituary last August. It inspired, “Cars and Computers— Never Fast Enough.”
Once I get past the discomfort that comes with envisioning my own demise, the thought of writing my own obituary really appeals to me. It reminds me of something Steve Jobs once said,
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Almost everything— all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure— these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
And now I know it! Writing this post really has helped me put my life in perspective. For my six-word memoir I want, “Lived simply. Loved fully. Died happy.” 🙂
What about you?
PS – If you’ve made it this far I’ll tell you about the photo above. I’ve include it because it represents for me the simplicity of life before we have language. It was many years before I started worrying about things like “How should I brand myself?” “What do I want out of life?” and “Am I happy?” (By the way, it’s one of my theories that if you ask that last question, you’re not.)
The photo on the left is me in 1977, and the photo on the right is my daughter Maya in 2014. Thanks to my wife Dawn for mashing these photos together. Good times being a baby, but I’ll never go back.